a few thoughts on the Paris attacks

there are countless ways to cope with stressful, unforeseen, and disturbing events. Break-ups, the death of a beloved one, or terrorist attacks like those that took place in Paris yesterday, November 13th.
One is to write. Writing helps to structure thoughts and emotions. Sometimes – not always – to gain some distance from the topic dominating your thoughts. That’s why people keep diaries, blogs, or, albeit to a different extent due to the 140 character limit, Twitter accounts. Or why some post status updates on Facebook. Obviously, a diary is just for yourself, while the other formats can be read by everyone (while, obviously, most blogs, including this one, are read by a handful of people). You want to be heard, or, at least, you like the thought that you could be heard.

First, terror in general. It has been with us since 9/11 at least. It has brought terror on the soil of the so-called „Western“ nations. Of course, there were earlier attacks, the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing („La Belle“) or the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center, the first Islamist strikes on US soil. But 9/11 was a game changer and there is no need to write extensively on its impact. Everyone who had reached a certain age at that time remembers the attacks or what he or she did when they occurred. It has reached Europe with the Madrid and London strikes. After a few smaller attacks that triggered a comparatively small outcry, this is the first major attack since then.

Paris reminds us of an inalienable and sad truth: Terror can not be successfully prevented. You can reduce its probability, yes. But you can not eliminate it altogether. Even the most totalitarian state imaginable could not achieve this. It does not take more than a few or even only one determined man and a weapon or explosive belt. Once again, we have to remind ourselves of the need to strike a delicate balance between freedom and security. Easier said than done, obviously. But this must not be forgotten now that politicians rally for more restrictive measures of all kinds, in particular superveillance. Eliminating terrorism altogether is impossible.

The war on terror. It must not be forgotten that France has not only been partly targeted as a symbol for „the West“ but primarily because of its role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS/IS/ISIL). The Islamic State would not stand a chance against a well-equipped army in an open confrontation. Hence it resorts to terror. It aims at the backbone of liberal democracies, its population. This is what islamist terrorism has been doing over and over again in order to overcome its military inferiority. Spreading fear. In the era of facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, this seems to be easier than ever. A decade ago, we would have been informed via TV, radio-broadcasts, or perhaps because via text messages sent by friends. Now there are even more means to inform us in real-time, with every detail and all sorts of accompanying rumours, thoughts, and commentary. Facebook tells us that people we know are safe or helps us to change our profile picture to „show support“. Paris feels as if it was just around the corner.

Some people talk of „selective mourning“ and remind us of other terrorist attacks or events that cost countless lives. Media coverage aside, Facebook seems to have opened Pandora’s box by enabling the temporary profile picture function. Where do we stop, or, more importantly, where to we start? What other places, events, or armed conflicts should be included? How many dead does it need?
Human nature seems to dictate us to relate more to people that are culturally closer to us than others. Paris is one of the most popular cities to travel to, it is featured in countless movies and we know people living there from Erasmus or other means to study abroad. Even in 2015, we have not overcome tribalism or collectivism. One must further not forget that yesterday’s attacks are not only a reaction to the French involvement in the fight against IS/ISIS, but also, as terrorism in general, directed against the concept commonly referred to as „the West“. Against the „Western lifestyle“, „Western habits“, „Western culture“. Relatedly, the current wave of attention is not only owed to empathy but also to fear. We are afraid, we could have also been targeted. We could have been at the concert or at the stadium. It is harder than ever to distance oneself, as it was the case after 9/11, by saying that the Americans were party to be blamed themselves and that Europe was comparatively safe as its track record of interference in Islamist countries was not as bad as that of the US.

Psychologically, we must also not forget that empathy is necessarily limited. If we tried to feel empathy for each and every case of human suffering, we would have to kill ourselves over sorrow after having read only the first pages of any newspaper. Is the coldness we feel in connection with many events a reason to remind ourselves of all the other horrors occurring on a daily basis? Yes and no. Yes, so as to avoid occupying ourselves with certain matters while ignoring other, perhaps even more troublesome tragedies. No, or at least only to a certain extent, because of the well-known effect of desensitization.

Normalcy. How long does it take until people start posting videos or pictures of cats again? Until debates are not dominated by this subject? Who are the first to do so?

Facebook (yes, Facebook again). At the beginning, it felt somewhat strange how the Facebook newsfeed algorithm mixed regular (older) posts of all kind with those related to Paris. But upon closer inspection, the „real world“ is no different. Yes, people talked about Paris. But at the same time, they ate, talked about other subjects, went out dancing, or read books before going to sleep. Just remember the famous picture showing a group of people sitting and laughing together while you can see the burning WTC in the background (see here).

Western values. There has been an endless debate on this topic. It will keep us occupied for the next decades not only because of Islamism but also because of the refugee crisis and the growth of the Muslim population in Europe. It still seems as if we are not entirely sure what exactly we understand as „our“ values. Or, at the very least, seem to be overwhelmed by the simple fact that the freedom of religion clahes with other human rights, first and foremost the freedom of expression, and, more generally, the idea of a secular state. A problem further exacerbated by the fact that many shy away from discussing or criticising Islam and values associated with over fear of being accused of racism.

Lastly, since it is my field of expertise, a few words on international law. Hollande called the attacks an „act of war“. His speech can be read as a resort to the concept of „armed attack“ in the sense of Article 51. Other acts of terrorism characterized as armed attacks and commonly accepted as triggering the right to self-defense include 9/11, Hezbollah against Israel in 2006, or Hamas against Israel in 2008/2009 and the summer of 2014. While, in particular in connection with the ICJ’s Wall-opinion, it has been argued that self-defense can only be invoked against attacks carried out by states, this position has now become even more difficult to maintain. As of now, France is even mulling over invoking Article 5 of the NATO pact meaning that an attack against one member constitutes an attack against all NATO states and they would thus have to react together. This would only be the second time in the history of NATO (the first was after 9/11).

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